About: Ilona Bray

Ilona Bray is an attorney who gave up the active practice of law to edit and author books and articles for Nolo. Her working background includes both solo immigration practice and working or volunteering as an immigration attorney with nonprofit organizations in Seattle and California.

Recent Posts by Ilona Bray

Selling a House in 2017? What to Consider

If you’ve already decided that this is your year to sell, you’ve probably been monitoring the housing market and enjoying the steady price appreciation that the last few years have brought to most parts of the United States.

That appreciation is projected to continue through 2017—albeit not as dramatically. The National Association of Realtors’ Senior Economist Joe Kirchner says that, “Nationally, home prices are forecast to slow to 3.9 percent growth year over year, from an estimated 4.9 percent in 2016.”

Part of the issue, according to Kirchner, is that interest rates will likely go up to 4.5 percent, driven by inflation.

The rising interest rates reduce the buyer pool somewhat, which isn’t good for sellers like you. On the other hand, with some homeowners changing their mind about selling (as they wait for prices to move up again), inventory may go down, and your house may become the plum that the remaining buyers are seeking.

As always, remember that in the final analysis, it’s your local market that determines how quickly and profitably your home sells—and there’s nearly always something new happening there, with or without a new calendar year.

As Las Vegas-based Realtor Rob Jensen (who contributed to the recently issued second edition of Nolo’s book Selling Your House) explains, “You’ll want to look carefully at your nearby competition including new builds.  Some people would rather buy a new home than a resale, so you are competing with new construction as well as resale homes. Comps tell the past of what has sold, but what’s for sale now? Regardless of how special or amazing your home is, buyers have choices, so do your best to look objectively at all the competition.”

Losing the Home Office Space Means Losing the Tax Deduction, Too

Overtime2A recent article in Bloomberg reported that dedicated space for a home office is “less of a selling point” than it once was for home sellers. It’s appearing less often in real estate ads and marketing, and new-home developers are shifting toward open-floor plans containing flexible spaces, workspace nooks, and lots of handy electrical outlets.

That’s all very well as a reflection of how modern connectivity allows many people to work from their sofa, in their pajamas, or at just about any time and place in their home. But if you’re operating some sort of business principally from your home, it’s worth also considering what you might lose out on when tax time rolls around if you don’t have a dedicated home office space.

The home office tax deduction lets people who meet various legal requirements deduct a percentage of their home-related costs, such as utilities, rent, insurance, depreciation, mortgage interest, real estate taxes, and certain casualty losses, repairs, and improvements.

But here’s the key thing to remember: the deduction applies only if you regularly use part of your home exclusively for your trade or business. The IRS can be a stickler on this point–if, for instance, your office is also the family TV room, an auditor who notices that might not allow the deduction.

Any shared use of a room or equipment can be problematic. So if it gets to the point where you can’t point to ANY part of your home that’s solely used to run your business, say bye bye to the deduction.

Check out Nolo’s articles on Home Deductions for more on the exact rules and benefits of the home office tax deduction.

 

Holiday Season Great for Home Deals—If You Can Cope With the Downsides

holiday lightsA recent, informal survey by the National Association of Exclusive Buyer Agents (NAEBA) asked its members—real estate brokerages that only represent home buyers—to report in on the challenges of shopping for a home during the holiday season.

The responses are in most cases either entertaining—“Aftermath of a New Year’s Eve party including passed out guests complete with open and spilled adult beverages”—or daunting—“Sellers reluctant to show because house is a wreck or too much company in house” and “difficulties in meeting deadlines when financial institutions or other offices are closed or industry personnel (loan officer, inspector, etc.) take time off.”

Difficulties aside, however, the NAEBA agents noted a silver lining to home shopping while everyone else is gift shopping: “Since we know anyone whose home is on the market during the holidays is highly motivated, we can be more aggressive in offering price and terms of the contract.”

Translated, that means that no seller in their right mind would put a home on the market during this cold, dreary, and distracted time of year—and therefore anyone who does so probably has a pressing reason.

Divorce, job change, or other change in life circumstances might be among the reasons. The seller basically needs to move, and move now.

That puts the prospective home buyer in a strong negotiating position. For help, see Nolo’s articles on Buying a House or Property.  Just step carefully on those frozen front steps, and don’t close the purchase until you have a chance to persuade a home inspector to put down the eggnog and come check the roof for leaks.

How Many Green Cards Were Misdelivered?!

green cardThe title of the recent report from the U.S. Office of the Inspector General says it all: “Better Safeguards Are Needed in USCIS Green Card Issuance.”

According to the OIG’s findings, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) “continues to struggle to ensure proper Green Card issuance.”

Among other problems over the last three years, USCIS made mistakes on, or produced duplicate versions of, at least 19,000 cards. What’s more, the agency received over 200,000 reports from approved applicants saying that their cards went missing before they got them–in many cases, because the cards were sent to the wrong address.

The latter problem isn’t always USCIS’s fault. However, the OIG found that the number of misdelivered green cards could be reduced if the process for updating one’s address with USCIS were easier.

Do these problems affect only the immigrants awaiting a valid green card? Not if you’re, say, an employer waiting to hire a recent immigrant, or a concerned citizen wondering about whose house that misdirected green card actually went to!

If you are an immigrant and USCIS made an error on your green card, see Mistake on Your Green Card: Who Pays the Replacement Fee? for tips on getting a free replacement. And if you’re awaiting your green card, and plan to move, be sure to either submit your change of address online, call USCIS’s customer service number, 800-375-5283, or complete Form AR-11 (available at www.uscis.gov/ar-11) and mail it to the address listed on the form.

How to Make Your Nonprofit’s Emails Stand Out on Days Like Giving Tuesday

clock and faceAlthough it has been around only since 2012, Giving Tuesday (on the first Tuesday after Thanksgiving) has become the established “opening day” for year-end online donations to nonprofit organizations.

Last year (in 2015) for example, almost 700,000 online donors collectively gave over $116 million dollars to charitable causes, according to a report by ImpactLab.

Suffice it to say that no nonprofit wants to be left out of the action. And judging from the number of emails in my inbox this morning (they haven’t stopped yet!) most nonprofits have realized this fact. The sheer number of emails is verging on annoying–problematic, as it might lead some recipients to give up and delete the whole lot.

But politely staying out of the fray is no longer a realistic option. So the question becomes, how can a nonprofit distinguish itself from the others within an email subject line or (if it’s lucky and the recipient actually opens it) within the short space of an email?

Here’s what I’m observing various groups trying:

  • Matching gifts. Subject lines like, “Donations matched for Giving Tuesday!”, “Urgent: Your gift will go twice the distance today,” and “3-1 Match for Giving Tuesday Only” are so common that they hardly attract attention. But on the plus side, if a donor was already thinking about making a gift to a particular group, seeing a time-delimited match might tip the balance. Matching gifts also offer a subtle way with which to establish a group’s credibility, if the donor offering the match is well respected.
  • Specific reminders of what a gift will support. With every other nonprofit asking for money to help its cause, it can be eye-catching to see something like, “Send a Girl to School for $58” or “$50 will plant five native trees.”
  • An end-of-day goal. The National Wildlife Federation, for example, set a goal of receiving sufficient donations with which to “plant 5,000 native trees, in order to help wildlife survive and thrive for years to come.” On the one hand, such a goal seems rather arbitrary (couldn’t it wait until tomorrow?); on the other hand, it effectively reminds donors what their collective response can achieve.
  • Humor and/or baby seals. I did enjoy Oceana’s email subject line: “There’s a sea lion pup who wants you to open this email.” The photo inside is, of course, adorable. (Those baby seal pictures never get old!)

Sad to say, some of the email subject lines are just plain dull, such as, “Today we celebrate Giving Tuesday.” (That’s the only one I saved long enough to quote!) But at least that nonprofit didn’t sit this year’s Giving Tuesday out!

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